College realignment's next steps: ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 scramble amid chaos

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Mar 6, 2018

College realignment's next steps: ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 scramble amid chaos​


The only certainty in conference realignment is uncertainty, much like the only constant in college athletics is change.

Decisions can whipsaw on the whims of a board member or a president pressured into a ready-fire-aim strategy. When diagnosing the travails of modern college sports, the fact that university decision-makers have virtually no expertise in the billion-dollar enterprise they run on the side often gets overlooked.

So to say with any certainty that the Big Ten and SEC aren't on the cusp of more imminent realignment moves would be correct for now, but that's seemingly a temporary pause. Is that pause a week? Or a year? Whatever the case, those conferences have established themselves as destinations so alluring that schools outside the "Power 2" would have to be tempted to join at a cut rate.

The only certain trigger for expansion among the Power 2 in the near term is a move by Notre Dame, which for now appears to be taking on a century-old strategy of patience. (The Fighting Irish have an ally in the SEC in any attempts by the Big Ten to box them out of the College Football Playoff. The SEC is unlikely to bless any move that prevents Notre Dame from having access to the playoff, as it would push the Irish to the Big Ten. The SEC wouldn't want to strengthen its rival league like that.)

The issue that both the Big Ten and SEC have in terms of adding additional schools is that there simply aren't any -- outside of Notre Dame -- that offer certainty of value to grow the financial pie enough to justify their slice. There are arguments for ACC schools like Clemson, North Carolina, Florida State and Miami. But there are looming legal reasons why UCLA, USC, Texas and Oklahoma are all waiting for their current TV contracts -- and congruent grants of rights -- to expire.

Any cries for Oregon and Washington in the Big Ten should be tempered by the reality that if USC and UCLA wanted them there in the first place, they'd probably be there. Those schools appear to value owning Los Angeles and the rich recruiting market much more. They have a monopoly on the West Coast. Why invite in your top competition?

For the ACC schools to bounce, there's a legal briar patch no one -- the poachers or the schools wanting to leave -- is eager to navigate. University presidents and conference commissioners are generally averse to legal issues; deposition is a dirty word in higher ed. Those factors, combined with exit fees and legal fees tied to grant of rights that could run more than $100 million, might make it so the juice of adding teams isn't worth the legal and fiscal squeeze -- at least in the short term.

So where's the next likely action amid the realignment landscape? Well, the most jockeying, consulting, back-channeling and speculation are centered around the race for No. 3. With the Big Ten and SEC having established themselves as a Power 2, the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 are scrambling to attempt to solidify or build the next best league.

What's unfolding in those three leagues is the quintessential college sports scenario where members are pledging fidelity to league members on Zooms while side texting about leaving for other leagues. Commissioners are chatting about potential deals among one another and privately crunching the numbers with consultants to poach the other's members. Conference allegiance these days comes with all the romance and permanence of a Tinder swipe.

Here's a look at the options all three leagues are exploring:

Big 12​

The Big 12 is the most stable of the three remaining leagues. That would have been considered a punchline for much of the past two decades, when the league endured so much infighting that it became the archetype of instability.

But here's the reality for the Big 12: The league is the most stable among the "Next Three" because there are no programs that are clearly coveted by the Big Ten or SEC.

When Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving last year, the remaining eight Big 12 members essentially put themselves on the open market. No one stopped to pick them up. That gave them solidarity by reality, which has birthed a stable union that blossomed by adding UCF, BYU, Cincinnati and Houston.

"We're more galvanized than we've ever been," a league source said. "There's no interest by Big 12 members going to the Pac-12 or ACC."

It's been quite a first week for new commissioner Brett Yormark, who has impressed the league's athletic directors and leaders with his humility and willingness to admit he knows what he doesn't know.

Yormark has been aggressive, per sources. The most logical play for the Big 12 remains going after Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah. In a realignment landscape that often doesn't make sense, those four schools would fit both competitively and geographically. All four would have realistic ambition to win the Big 12 while putting rivals Utah and BYU in the same league.

For those four schools, hitching their futures to Oregon and Washington in some sort of rearranged Pac-12 would likely be a short-term relationship, as it's probable the Ducks and Huskies will be looking across the financial moat over to the Big Ten. Even, perhaps, at a discounted rate.

If Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah go to the Big 12, it would essentially kill the Pac-12. Would Washington and Oregon end up following? The Pac-12 would be largely vacant, and they'd need a home better than a juiced-up Mountain West.

The Big 12's advantage over the ACC in potentially poaching schools is that they are headed to open market after the 2024 football season.

The ACC can reopen its TV deal if schools are added, but there's unlikely to be an eye-popping increase in the value of that ACC contract.

The Big 12 can pitch potential schools on the allure of a lucrative deal that could potentially involve streamers, networks and perhaps new linear partners.

A full-on merger/alliance-type move with the Pac-12 would be complicated for many reasons, including existing television deals. There's also too many mouths to feed to get a blockbuster deal. The Pac-12 TV deal expiring in 2023 makes the league an easy target.


When assessing the ACC in the race for No. 3, the fact that it is seemingly protected legally looms as a giant factor. The ACC has a handful of high-end properties left on the board, and those schools have agreed to a binding grant of rights that ties them together through 2036, when its ESPN television contract expires.

The ACC's options are simple: stand pat, add a select handful of schools to open up the ESPN deal for potentially more revenue or enter a strategic merger.

The issue for the ACC is that there are enough current members unsettled at the notion of the league evenly splitting its income between its 14 football members that it has become a tension point.

There's been informal discussion of unequal revenue sharing in the ACC for months, and commissioner Jim Phillips' biggest challenge is going to be keeping big brands that could have interest from the Power 2 -- Clemson, North Carolina, Miami, Florida State and Virginia -- happy.

However the ACC evolves in the upcoming weeks, expect the league to introduce some type of new revenue sharing. In theory, a Clemson program that's won two national titles in the past decade would make more than a Boston College program that hasn't won eight games since 2009. Would this be based on performance both on the field and in TV ratings? That'll be for the consultants. But the days of holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" are likely over in the ACC. And probably elsewhere below the Power 2.

"Leagues that aren't the SEC and Big Ten need a different revenue distribution model," an industry source said. "The top teams can't afford to support the bottom half of the league. To keep the bigger brands away from the Big Ten and SEC, the bigger brands are going to need a bigger piece of the pie."

In the past, the notion of unequal revenue sharing has been a precursor to leagues falling apart. Perhaps if it's earned, as opposed to given, that could be more sustainable?

Could more money from some type of ACC addition or merger, combined with unequal revenue sharing, make the ACC more sustainable for the top teams?

A full merger doesn't make sense because it brings on more of the same issue: too many second-tier schools that offer little high-end inventory.

So what could the ACC do? Could it swing a Western Division and cherry-pick six to eight schools in the Midwest (TCU, Oklahoma State or Houston) and the core of the remaining Pac-12 (Oregon, Washington, Stanford and Cal) or maybe target decent-sized media markets such as Cincinnati, Arizona State or Colorado? Could it lure them with more money than a league like the Big 12?


Clearly, this league is the most vulnerable going forward. There isn't a strong appetite among the remaining 10 members to add a few Mountain West schools like San Diego State or Boise State or the WCC's Gonzaga in basketball and soldier on.

They want to think bigger, but the loss of USC and UCLA has meant a loss of leverage. Perhaps the most nerve-wracking thing for Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is that any school can leave without penalty after 2023. Just like USC and UCLA did. So it's hard to poach when the contract leaves you vulnerable to being poached.

Kliavkoff must be aware of conflicts of interest. As Pac-12 expert Jon Wilner pointed out recently, the Pac-12's new board chair is Washington president Ana Mari Cauce. Clearly, Washington is going to have a wandering eye for safer ground. Can she be relied on to guide the league through a period where its survival is at stake?

There isn't much current interest from the Big Ten in adding Washington and Oregon at a full share nor are USC or UCLA lobbying for them to join.

The Big Ten is waiting on Notre Dame, just like everyone else. That underscores why things are so tenuous for the Pac-12, as it's hard to envision Washington and Oregon agreeing to some type of long-term binding grant of rights through the length of whatever next deal the league could put together. The cruel reality of the environment is that outside of the Power 2, the best programs in all the other leagues are plotting to get across the moat and join them. In today's environment, the financial disparity after the Power 2 is going to accentuate the instability everywhere else.

For Kliavkoff to save the league, he needs to be aggressive and creative in some type of merger, as his league is wounded, and the timing of the television contract leaves them exposed. Much of this isn't his fault. But he should take some blame for not catering enough to his big brands. Much like we mentioned earlier about the ACC's future, there was no way the Pac-12 could have moved forward with USC earning the same as Oregon State. But the reality is that even the Pac-12's most generous and creative solutions probably wouldn't have been able to keep the Los Angeles schools around.

The Pac-12 needs to fortify however possible, and that vulnerability makes it an unlikely poacher. Safety in numbers via some arrangement with another league appears to be the best option. But there's no league more desperate right now, which is a tough position to negotiate from.
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